Easter travels

It feels a bit odd to come home after a holiday in Spain and Portugal, much of which we spent wrapped up in warm clothes and rainwear, to good old Blighty where the temperatures are in the mid-twenties, the sun is cracking the flags and it’s shorts and sandals all round. In some ways, though, it’s a good thing. We had a fabulous holiday, despite the weather (and the sun did come out a bit), and there’s no denying that some lovely warm sunshine here has eased the transition back to normal life.

This was our first fortnight’s holiday for 3 years, since our mini inter-rail round Northern Italy and Switzerland when Sophia was a newborn baby. I think we were all ready for it, especially my husband who, in the intervening time, has started his own business and has been working incredibly hard with long hours and very few days off. Last summer he wasn’t able to come on our planned holiday to Anglesey due to last-minute work issues, and although he came to Cornwall in August he was welded to his laptop and mobile for much of each day. This fortnight was a complete switch-off, and it was brilliant for all of us.

san sebastian.JPG

Our first week was in San Sebastian, or Donostia, in Basque, which is the local language. We had heard this was a foodie paradise, and oh my goodness it didn’t disappoint. We relaxed bedtime sufficiently to allow the children to come out with us each evening for pintxos, which is the Basque equivalent of tapas. Every bar and cafe has the most amazing array of delicious-looking morsels laid out, and you just point to the ones you want, or order from a blackboard list if you want the hot specials of the day. The locals invariably eat standing up at the bar, or at bar height outside tables. I must admit that my British sensibilities can’t quite cope with this – I like my meals sat at a proper table, preferably with cutlery and a napkin thank you very much! Also, if you’re 3 or 9, a table which is chest height on an adult doesn’t really work for you. We generally found some stools to perch on, or one inspired night we sat outside on the steps of a local church, eating sublime food and watching the world go by, as well as having a sneaky few glasses of the local tipple txakoli (pronounced something like chickoli) which is an ultra-dry, light, slightly sparkling wine which might well knock prosecco off my top spot. That was one of those evenings you know will stay with you forever.

The flavour combinations were just stunning. Goats cheese with local ham, black olive tapenade, sundried tomatoes and caramelised onions. Roasted red peppers stuffed with a creamy sauce of hake and fresh herbs. Squid cooked in a light tempura batter so tender that it almost literally melted in the mouth. Anna took to all this like a duck to water and revelled in trying everything, the more adventurous the better. Sophia…not so much. She is going through an ultra-fussy phase anyway (I really hope it’s just a phase), and she was resolutely unimpressed. Luckily she loves fruit of all kinds and there was a luscious selection in the shops, so she basically survived on bread and fruit, with the odd ham sandwich thrown in . What she did love was the adventure of going out in the evening and experiencing all the fun and colour and excitement of a new city. She usually still has an afternoon nap anyway, and so was more than happy to catch up on her sleep through an extended siesta.

San Sebastian also has the most beautiful beaches, and the children got to build sandcastles to their heart’s content, and I got to stroll contemplatively along the golden sand with the turquoise (and very cold) waves lapping at my toes, which is one of my favourite things to do in the whole world.


Then we got the overnight ‘hotel train’ to Lisbon. As someone who has travelled across Europe fairly extensively by sleeper train, often in a couchette which has six people to a cabin, cracked faux-leather berths to sleep on, and a fairly malodorous single toilet at the far end of the carriage, these en suite twin cabins with crisp white sheets, snuggly blankets and complimentary toiletries feel the height of decadence. I adored the adventure of our couchette journeys, but that was when we were child-free twenty-somethings. I have to admit that I’ve gone soft, and that this level of comfort now feels like a necessity. It is still the most brilliant system. We boarded the train at about 7pm in San Sebastian, had a picnic tea in our cabin, and then settled down for the night. We woke up at 7am ready to get dressed as the train pulled into Lisbon station. Sadly breakfast on the train had sold out, so we had to make do with a panic snack of the slightly stale bread and leftover fruit from our tea the evening before, but that was the only hitch.

Husband and I went to Lisbon about fifteen years ago, loved it, and have always been intending to return. In the last fifteen years it has become much more of a tourist hotspot  – it sometimes felt as though English and French were as commonly heard on the streets as Portuguese, but it has so far retained all its charm. One enormous benefit of visiting in spring, this time, as opposed to autumn last time, was the heavenly scent of orange blossom which lingered everywhere.

We ate pasteis da nata (gorgeous custard tarts), took a boat across the river, rode on the charming 1930s yellow trams, visited the largest aquarium in Europe which was absolutely stunning – penguins, sea otters and puffins, as well as a massive variety of all kinds of fish and sharks-  and took a day trip out to Sintra. This was the town where, in days gone by the Portuguese royalty and aristocracy built their summer palaces so that they could escape the intense heat of Lisbon to the cooler mountains and coast. It is truly fairy-tale like, an impression heightened by husband having arranged to have us met at the station by a horse-drawn carriage! Needless to say the girls (including me, to be honest) were in heaven.

It was fun to revisit old favourite places, and discover lots of new ones this holiday. We ate delicious food, drank delicious wine, and got lots of fresh (albeit occasionally rather bracing) air. We also got the chance to really relax away from school runs and homework and emails and deadlines and all the pressures of day-to-day life which sometimes mean that I feel all I ever say to my children is ‘hurry up’. It was a total pleasure to watch how much the girls enjoyed each other’s company; Anna made up the most amazing stories to entertain Sophia during long walks or boring airport waits, they ran around ancient squares or enormous beaches together and got lost in elaborate imaginative games.

anna and sophia lisbon

Anna and Sophia in Lisbon’s grand ceremonial central square.

Anna and I are both glad to be home – we love travel and adventure, but we’re home bodies deep down. I think husband and Sophia would travel forever if they could – Sophia got really upset this morning because she thought that me applying suncream when I got her dressed meant that we were going to the beach, and she would have infinitely preferred that to preschool!

But we have had a gloriously memorable and relaxing holiday.


Beside the seaside

Predictably, despite my panics, the summer holidays are absolutely flying by. Only just over two weeks to go, and then we’ll be back in the school-run routine again. I’m taking advantage of a very rare window of peace and quiet when Anna is round at her friend’s building a den to hold the meetings of their secret society (“I think ‘society’ sounds much more grown up and important than ‘club’, doesn’t it, Mummy?), and Sophia is having her nap. Aannnnd breathe…

The lovely thing about this summer is the amount of time we have been lucky enough to spend at the seaside, first of all in Anglesey and then in West Cornwall. I love the sea. Somehow gazing out to sea, breathing the tangy saline air, feeling the sand between my toes manages to calm and energise and inspire me all at the same time.

path to beach

It’s also been brilliant watching how much fun the children can have with a good old bucket and spade – damming streams, digging holes, building sandcastles.

One of my worries about these school holidays was that the disparity in ages between Anna (8) and Sophia (2) would make it really difficult to entertain both of them at the same time, but a beach really is a happy place for all of us.

Of course, it has also helped having lots of family around. We were in Anglesey with my parents and, for half the time, with my brother and SIL, and my MIL was with us in Cornwall. They were around to give me a chance for a solitary walk along the beach of an evening, to teach Anna to play French cricket, to pass a rainy afternoon in reading stories or teaching origami, to take care of Sophia for a few hours and enable us to have a lovely long cliff path walk with Anna. Thank heaven for grandparents and aunts and uncles!

looking at the view

Just looking through my photos as I prepare this post has given me a renewed sense of calm and tranquility. The challenge now is to maintain that in the hustle and bustle of daily life a long way away from the sea. The little cafe just off the beach at Lligwy, where we stayed on Anglesey, had this poster up:

live well sign

Yes, it’s a little bit hippyish, and yes, these things are all easier to achieve on holiday by a beautiful beach than they are on a grey November morning when you have to do three loads of laundry, clean the loo and pay the credit card bill. But despite this, it actually feels like pretty good advice. I suspect that when my life starts to feel overwhelming and out of balance it is because I haven’t been spending enough time doing some of these.

It can’t always be sunset over Penzance Harbour or Lligwy Beach, but I really want to retain some of the magical peace of these beautiful places now I’m back home in East London.

Rain doesn’t stop play

st michaels in rainI’m writing this in Cornwall, curled on the sofa with a view of the sea in the distance. Being Cornwall, and being summer, you can barely tell sea and sky apart, they are just slightly different shades of rather forbidding grey.  My husband has been coming on holiday to the Penwith peninsula in the far West of Cornwall every year since he was a small child. We got together when we were eighteen, and since then I’ve joined in with the family tradition, and our daughter came down here for the first time when she was just three months old. This is now her sixth Cornish holiday.

One of my favourite travel experiences of all time is arriving at Paddington Station to take the express train to Penzance. Just the list of stations – Lostwithiel, St Austell, Truro, Redruth, St Erth – is intensely romantic. Well, to me anyway. Maybe I over-dosed on Daphne du Maurier at an impressionable age. I love everything about this region – the sea in all its moods, the dramatic cliffs, the uncompromising granite buildings, the plethora of vivid wildflowers. When I did antenatal classes before my daughter was born, our teacher suggested we envision our own ‘happy place’, somewhere we could take ourselves mentally, where we would feel serene and tranquil, and therefore distract ourselves if we were scared or in pain. My happy place was Penberth Cove and, much to my surprise, it worked. As I lay in a strange and sterile operating theatre, being prepped for an emergency c-section, shaking violently all over from a combination of nerves and reaction to the anaesthetic, I took myself to Penberth, listened to the waves crashing onto the shore, saw the million different shades of blue, green and grey in the swirling sea, and felt miraculously calmed.

I say all this to prove my credentials as someone with a genuine love for, and loyalty to, Cornwall. However, I do have a few itsy, bitsy complaints, related entirely to the weather. It is late May. We are in the far West of the West Country. Was it unreasonable to imagine that we might get some sunshine? This is only Day Three of the holiday, but the answer so far is a resounding yes, the evidence I’ve amassed over the past fifteen years should have indicated to me that a week of unbroken sunshine was, at best, improbable. It’s all so resonant of my childhood.

It’s funny – in many ways my husband and I had very different upbringings. He was the only child of bohemian parents living in a fifth floor flat in inner London. My childhood was classic 2.4 children territory in suburban Liverpool. However, one set of reminiscences we share is childhood holidays. The Eighties was when many British families discovered the joy of the cheap package holiday – apartments in Benidorm or Majorca with balconies, pools and, most crucially of all, guaranteed sunshine. Not something we ever experienced. Our childhood holidays were all about cottages in Wales or Devon or Cornwall, about board games and dominos, the dreaded car picnic, about gazing out of the window with desperate optimism saying things like ‘I think it’s brightening a little bit over there’, about beach days where the children wore wellies and sweaters over their swimming costumes and the adults huddled shivering behind windbreaks. (I’m sure only the British have windbreaks. In other countries, if the weather is such that you need a windbreak then you wouldn’t be on the beach). The sun did shine sometimes, of course it did. And at that point, safe sun messages being another decade away, we’d get our shoulders and noses burnt and spend the rest of the holiday being slathered with calamine lotion.

And now here I am, aged thirty-three. On holiday with my daughter. In Cornwall. In the pours of rain. Yesterday, lacking even the car for a car picnic, we ate our lunch on the harbour front at Porthleven. Huddled together, waterproofs on, hoods up, in a race to eat our pasties before the paper bags they were in disintegrated into mush. Anna was wearing a long sleeved t-shirt, a tunic dress over leggings, wellies, a thick woollen cardie and a waterproof coat. ‘Why didn’t we bring my mittens, Mummy?” she wailed. Why indeed? Because it’s May? Every now and then one of the adults would look up and say “I think it might be going off a bit”, and Anna would just raise a sceptical eyebrow.

We’re clearly programmed to recreate our childhood experiences for Anna but, frankly, she could do a lot worse. I’ve now travelled fairly extensively over Europe, although sadly not much further afield, and I still think West Cornwall is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen, with those other childhood favourites of North Wales, Pembrokeshire and Devon not coming far behind. There are fantastic walks, an abundance of wildlife, friendly people, quaint harbours, unsurpassable beaches and the gastronomic delights of fresh fish, pasties, cream teas and Cornish ice cream. And, you know, I think it might be brightening a bit over there. I’d better go and find my wellies.



Lost in Margate

This has been very much a week of two halves – summer’s last fling, and the definite beginnings of autumn.

At the start of the week, Anna and I had a couple of days in Margate, on the Kent coast, with my parents. Despite the fact that the weather very firmly decided to treat us to a preview of its Autumn/Winter Collection – complete with lashing rain, howling winds and distinctly chilly temperatures – we managed to have a lovely time. Some elements of the trip had a distinctly deja vu element to them, as I re-lived childhood holidays, eating a ‘car picnic’ to escape the driving rain, or sitting in the back seat of the car listening to my parents puzzling over the OS map, with maybe a little companionable bickering. The only difference was that instead of my baby brother (29 this week!) sitting next to me, it was my own baby.

We got hopelessly lost finding the hotel (famous last words – “It’s right next to the station, and that’s sure to be signposted…),but Anna was utterly unfazed by that or the weather, sitting contentedly in her car seat with an Usborne activity book to look at while we drove round in circles  trying in vain to distinguish grey sea from grey sky. When we finally found the hotel she was then in positive ecstasies at the never-before-experienced treat of watching CBeebies, with mummy, in a double bed. When the rain cleared slightly she and Granddad set off to explore, and came back to tell me and my mum about all the interesting things she’d seen. We ate dinner in the hotel, Anna  insisting on ordering her own food in a very grown-up little way, and then enjoying herself hugely when her sausage and mash arrived with its own miniature gravy boat. At one point it seemed as though everything in the restaurant was going to get a liberal covering of gravy, but she was happy.

One of the reasons for going to Margate in the first place was that my mum really wanted to visit the new(ish) Turner Contemporary Gallery there. The exhibition at the moment is on Curiosity, and, although not in any way aimed at children, Anna actually seemed to get a lot out of it, particularly enjoying examining some Leonardo da Vinci papers with a magnifying glass. To be fair, I think it was the magnifying glass which was the main attraction, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

Miraculously the sun even came for long enough for Anna, in her wellies, to get a little while on the beach in neighbouring Broadstairs with what she grandly calls her Corsican Sand Set (or bucket and spade bought in Corsica).

Then, thanks to the high speed rail line from Kent, just a couple hours after leaving the beach we were back in London segueing dramatically from the last of the lovely summer to the start of the school year and Anna’s formal education.

She started yesterday lunchtime, and although it’s very early days so far, seems to be taking to it like a duck to water. My husband took the day off work, ostensibly for Anna’s sake, but actually I suspect to hold my hand and try to avert any incipient nervous breakdown. When we picked her up we decided to go for a celebratory milkshake at a local cafe. She talked incessantly all the way there, paused for just long enough to slurp her banana shake, and the started again pretty much nonstop until bedtime. Being a thoroughly modern child she also insisted on sending text messages to Nanna, Granddad and Granny to let them know how she’d got on. When we took her in this morning she left without a backward glance.

I can’t say I’m managing the transition with quite as much ease as she is. I’m very lucky to have a fledgling career as a writer, and  finishing my second book to focus on, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the last four and a half years as a stay-at-home mum has been the best thing I’ve ever done, and I don’t feel entirely ready to leave this stage behind. Watch this space to see how I get on…

Summer holidays

chateau-de-pornic-201-1A couple of months ago the seven weeks of school holidays loomed very large in my mind. Don’t get me wrong, I love my daughter to bits, but now she’s used to the stimulation and companionship of nursery I was worried that seven weeks home alone with mummy would prove rather wearing for both of us. In my panicked efforts to avoid this, and to catch up with various friends and relatives, I seem to have inadvertently organised the Helen & Anna Summer Roadshow.

Two weeks into the holidays and we’ve already clocked up a day trip to Cambridgeshire and a week in Nantes. Tomorrow we set off for the North West leg of the show – a weekend in Manchester with my brother and sister-in-law, and then five days in Liverpool with my parents, sans husband as he doesn’t get a seven week holiday. There’s then two days to catch our breath before we set off for a week’s family holiday, another home exchange, in Corsica. After that we have ten days at home before rounding things off with a couple of days on the Kent coast.

Our day trip to St Neots gave me the opportunity to catch up with my best friend and her husband and baby son, and then (almost as exciting) a trip to the Cath Kidston Factory Shop which is a 10 minute drive from hers. I acquired a red spotty tray, some baby blue melamine salad servers, a retro luggage-label style travel first aid kit and a strawberry print purse. Very restrained, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Nantes is a really vibrant city, which actually reminded us quite a lot of East London, and my Liverpool home, with its self-confident reincarnation of an old dockside economy into an artistic and cultural hub. It’s also only a half hour drive from the seaside – beautiful stretches of sandy, salty beaches. This meant I could indulge my passion for swimming in the sea which was fabulous, but had a downside in Anna’s throwaway comment of “Isn’t it funny the way wearing a swimming costume makes your tummy look like there’s a baby growing in it, Mummy?”. In an older child that might have been cheeky, but this was said with complete innocence and, thank God, a complete lack of consciousness that a rounded stomach might not necessarily be a positive thing. I’ve decided to take comfort from the fact that this observation clearly means that I don’t look pregnant the 98% of the time I’m not in swimwear, and to renew my resolution to do more exercise once Anna starts school.

We went with friends whose little boy is Anna’s best friend from nursery, and they had such a lovely time playing together:

“Daddy, when me and S are staying in the same house, it’s just like we’re twins, isn’t it?”

Add that to the fact that the home exchange family whose house we were staying in had left us with custody of their two cats, two chickens, two fish and one bunny rabbit, not to mention sandpit, paddling pool, trampoline, swing and slide, and you begin to see why we’re developing a miserable conviction that no other holiday we take Anna on will ever quite match up to this one. Although I was reassured yesterday when she confided, “Mummy, I really, really, really like holidays, but I like our house most of all.” Phew.